End of daily air service warrants federal probe

It took just a month for the first daily commercial air service out of Youngstown in 14 years to go from low-takeoff to no-takeoff. Great Lakes JetExpress, which has been providing round-trip flights from Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, called it quits Wednesday night.

The decision came after the Western Reserve Port Authority – which had lured the airline’s operating company, Aerodynamics Inc. (ADI), with a $1.2 million revenue guarantee – decided to pull the plug.

Great Lakes received $350,000 of the guarantee for the month of July, but the port authority concluded that the goal of 50- to 60-percent passenger capacity would not be met.

ADI used a 49-seat Embraer ERJ-145 jet, and in July, the first month of service, the average capacity was 31 percent.

On Sunday, Aug. 14, The Vindicator published a front-page story by business writer Kalea Hall headlined “Slow takeoff.”

“The Great Lakes JetExpress wasn’t as filled as airline and airport leaders would have liked, but it was only the first month of service,” Hall wrote.

She quoted Dan Dickten, director of aviation at Youngstown-Warren Regional, as saying: “It’s moving and it’s trending. It’s going to take some time.”

Four days later, The Vindicator published another front-page story about the Youngstown-to-Chicago flights with the headline: “WRPA seeks to end daily Chicago service”.

Then, on Thursday, there was this on the front page: “Valley flights by ADI halted.”

The demise of daily air travel from Youngstown to one of the most important and busiest airline hubs in the country has sent the Mahoning Valley into a tailspin.

We, along with many area residents, were convinced that the 14-year wait for daily commercial air service was over. After all, it had taken ADI two years to win Federal Aviation Administration approval to expand its charter business.

For his part, Youngstown-Warren airport’s Dickten spent countless hours setting the stage for the inaugural flight in July.

Selling points

One of the selling points for us was the survey conducted of local businesses to determine what destination was a priority for them. Chicago came out on top.

Another key consideration is the fact that the port authority is being advised by Tom Reich, director of air service development at AvPorts, a consulting service for airports.

“We act as an airport lawyer in the courtroom of airline opinion,” said Reich, who was brought on board in 2010 to develop new air service at Youngstown-Warren Regional.

That description of his work is important today, given a key claim by ADI for the demise of the Youngstown service.

The company contends that United Airlines refused to provide flight connections from O’Hare International. United has an interline agreement with Great Lakes JetExpress, but not with ADI.

Many Valley travelers wanted to board other flights in Chicago without the hassle of retrieving their luggage and then going through security checks again.

Given the role played by Reich and Dickten in luring ADI, we wonder how much information they had about the interline agreement and the ticketing arrangements.

Indeed, at the beginning of the year, in expressing our support for daily air service, we said this:

“We urge YNG leaders to press hard for convenient takeoff and landing times and for airfares comparable to those at larger hub airports in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Akron-Canton.

“Agreements need to be reached with other major carriers to ensure that passengers from YNG to Chicago can make direct hassle-free connections onto larger airlines to reach their final destinations.”

The demise of daily air service from Youngstown demands a full airing because tax dollars were spent.

We believe an investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation is warranted, given that ADI was paid $300,000-plus for the month of July alone.